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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 552

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This is the grave of John Adams.

As with Jefferson the other day, I’m not sure that it is really necessary to provide an entire biography of John Adams, much of which has become pretty well-known over the last 25 years after the David McCullough biography and then the HBO miniseries based on it, with Paul Giamatti perfectly cast as this cranky grump. But I do think some general points are necessary, so a sketch seems appropriate here, which can then be fleshed out in comments.

Born in 1735 on his family farm in Braintree, Massachusetts, Adams didn’t grow up particularly wealthy, but the family was respectable Puritan at a time when Puritanism was rapidly fading from the New England scene. He had no choice but to get the best education which the colonies had to offer, which was Harvard, where he graduated in 1755. He wanted to fight in the French and Indian War and didn’t really care for the law career where he was headed. He would rather have been a farmer. But of course he was very good at the law and became one of the finest young lawyers in Massachusetts. He became interested in the idea of the American colonies having common interest after 1761, when James Otis influenced him to think about these issues. By 1765, Adams was a leading voice against the Stamp Act, writing essays under a pseudonym about it that were not only published in Boston, but also in London. By 1768, he was the most prominent lawyer in Boston, after mental illness struck down Otis.

When the Boston Massacre took place, Adams was a well-known leader for the colonial cause. But he also saw the need for a fair trial and notoriously led the defense of the soldiers indicted for murder. His skilled defense got most of them off. Despite the famous propaganda painting that made it seem as the British just opened fire on the innocent protestors, the reality was that it was at night, everyone was confused, and the whole trial was a mess. Although some Patriots were outraged that Adams would represent the other side, it helped his reputation as a fair and good lawyer tremendously and his practice boomed. It also made him seem like a moderate on the colonial issues, which would give him a lot of prestige a few years later.

Adams cheered on the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and then became a member of the First Continental Congress in 1774. He quickly moved toward independence and hoped that Lexington and Concord would see that through. Adams nominated George Washington to command the Patriot troops shortly after, hoping that getting a Virginian to lead what was then mostly a Massachusetts rebellion would help unite the colonies in common cause. Turned out to be a really good choice!

In 1776, annoyed at how long independence was taking, it was Adams himself who selected the Committee of Five to draft the Declaration of Independence, consisting of himself, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Adams knew that he was a cranky bastard who a lot of people disliked personally, which was a major reason that he had Jefferson write the document. He also, again, wanted a Virginian to take the lead.

After the Declaration of Independence, Adams was sent to France to build relations with the court of Louis XVI, hoping for recognition and aid. In terms of skill and smarts, Adams was a good choice. In terms of personality, the Puritan was an atrocious choice. He hated the French and they hated him in return. Luckily, Franklin was also there to smooth things over. Adams thought Franklin ridiculous, but the latter knew how to appeal to the French. Sure, Franklin himself knew the coonskin cap routine was a silly act, but the savvy old man also knew it was how Europeans wanted to see America. In 1780, Adams was sent to the Dutch, with whom he got along better as a people, but they were scared of angering the British and refused to see him officially. He then helped negotiate the Treaty of Paris, where he worked his good personal relations with the British to improve the final treaty, especially on fishing rights, irritating the French, who again, Adams really disliked.

All of this was very hard on his family life. His wife, the brilliant Abigail, was separated from him for many years. He totally blew off her call to “remember the ladies.” He was a sexist as any man of that time. He brought his young brilliant son John Quincy with him. His other two boys became total drunks and failures, as they couldn’t deal with the intense family pressure that JQA thrived in.

Adams stayed in Britain after the war, becoming the nation’s first ambassador to the UK. Abigail finally joined him in 1785. It was a tough task. Both nations were ignoring the treaty obligations. The U.S. never paid the exiled Tories a cent. The British ignored the western border. Plus Adams was such a grump that he alienated most of the people in the British court and in Parliament.

In 1789, Adams returned to the U.S. and became Vice-President under Washington. Adams was all about official titles for the presidency and this quickly gave him a reputation as a quasi-monarchist that would follow him the rest of his career. Washington immediately made the VP a worthless position and Adams was basically in political no-man’s land as Hamilton became the leader of the new Federalist Party that appealed to Adams, while his former friend Jefferson broke from these policies by 1792 and headed the Democratic-Republicans.

In 1796, Adams was the obvious choice for the Federalists to run for president and of course he won. It was hard being president in these days. In an era, where political leaders held to the idea that political parties would destroy the republic, the growth of them made each side see the other as destroying the nation. Plus, no one respected the U.S. The British and French both basically laughed at the young weak nation as they fought each other for control over the world. The XYZ Affair, where Talleyrand demanded a bribe for American diplomats to even see him, was a deep insult to the nation and since Adams already hated the French, it infuriated him deeply. To his credit, he didn’t let this get to his head too much and he avoided desiring war, unlike many Federalists.

But Adams also distrusted the Jeffersonians and this led him to the worst thing he ever did–sign the Alien and Sedition Acts. We are very lucky this did not end the republic. Tossing opposition newspaper editors in prison is the first step down the road to dictatorship. Adams was not a huge supporter of them per se. In fact, Abigail was far more adamant that these Jeffersonians be locked up than he ever was. But he signed them anyway. Adams’ second largest mistake was allowing Hamilton to control his Cabinet. They did not trust each other at all, but Adams thought it unconstitutional to ask people to resign. So all these Hamiltionians stuck around almost until the end of his term. He was undermined from within, often from people far more anti-democratic than he was. The quasi-war with France didn’t help matters. Adams didn’t want to name Hamilton as the potential commander in the potential real war because he feared the man would use it to promote his own power. So he named Washington without even asking him and then a whole controversy developed over where Hamilton would rank under Washington, a situation not helped by the incredibly egotistical former Secretary of the Treasury. Luckily, real war was avoided.

So Adams’ presidential term was fairly disastrous and Jefferson defeated him in 1800. Although incredibly bitter over to this, to the extent of leaving town before Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams leaving office for an opposition party’s candidate was the greatest move of his life. This set up the long American tradition of peaceful transfers of power, even when the two parties hate each other. This broke down only in 1860. It may well again break down in 2020. I’d say even odds on that. But given how unstable democracies are, the U.S. has been stable in no small part because of the precedent Adams set in 1800.

Adams mostly stayed out of politics after this, a senior leader but also a man who had alienated almost everyone by then. He refused to criticize Jefferson publicly and mostly remained on his farm in Braintree. He and Jefferson finally reconciled when they were old men, with their famous exchange of letters. He lived long enough to see John Quincy become president, dying, as everyone knows, on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and the same day as Jefferson, a sign many Americans understood as from God, showing the righteousness of their nation.

There’s a lot more to say here, but this is a 1,500 word post already. So let’s let the rest slide into comments.

John Adams is buried in United First Parish Church, Quincy, Massachusetts. Abigal is buried there as well, but she is well worth her own post, which will come later in this series.

If you would like this series to visit members of Adams’ Cabinet, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Timothy Pickering is in Salem, Massachusetts and Oliver Wolcott, Jr., is in Litchfield, Connecticut. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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